The recent outrage over Cambridge Analytica (CA) demonstrates perfectly how we have almost completely failed to grasp how the Internet works.
The scandal erupted because a ‘whistleblower‘ exposed how CA used data derived from Facebook to refine the targeting for the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum. CA was also influential in Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign.
The actual scandal concerns the sneaky way CA got its data from Facebook, via a Personality Quiz which contravened Facebook’s terms, but that has got lost in the general sense of shock that the details we post on Facebook have somehow become a traded currency.
To which, surely, the only sensible response is…. ‘no shit, Sherlock?’
The Guardian and The Observer broke the story after some admirable investigative journalism.
Furthermore, they promised to uncover the shocking truth……
- How data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica used people’s Facebook data for political campaigning.
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- How Cambridge Analytica is connected to AggregateIQ — the digital agency used by the Vote Leave official campaign for Brexit.
I bow to no man in my admiration for The Guardian, but, as scandals go, I’m afraid this just seems a bit flimsy.
What do people think Facebook does? How does any online business, providing services ostensibly ‘free’, make money?
The oft-cited expression goes “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”
I recall many years ago, when Facebook was new and exciting and relevant to young people as well as the middle-aged, Channel 4 made a documentary in which they interviewed some excited early adopters of social media. The first part of each interview consisted of the speaker expressing their love for Facebook, extolling its virtues in connecting us with friends and loved ones, making us better people, curing loneliness and generally making the world a better place. The second part consisted in the interviewer probing around how these advocates thought Facebook made money and, more pertinently, what would happen to the personal information collected about them. Needless to say the very idea that personal data was the currency was appalling and simply not believable.
Many years later, you might have expected that the business model underpinning online businesses – we provide services and we use the data we collect to target you ever-more accurately – would have become widely appreciated. Maybe even applauded? After all, that’s how businesses provide ever better, more personalised feeds and more relevant products.
It’s not just the public who have struggled to get used to the idea that Google and others are trading our personal data. As Forbes Magazine put it, at the time of writing in April 2018..
One of the scariest parts of this entire mess is that our governing officials, those who make our laws, do not have a fundamental understanding of how social media works.
Marketing people are watching this whole story with a mix of fascination and embarrassment. After all, this – targeting people as accurate as possible by using the best data available – is very much what we do.
As the inimitable Mark Ritson put it:
On the Cambridge Analytica ‘scandal’: In the past two weeks I’ve had the same conversation with several senior marketers. The marketer inevitably says with a sheepish grin: ‘We’ve been doing this shit for years’
Some people will inevitably remain appalled and outraged – yawn. However, this particular horse has not so much already bolted but rather it has left the stables, grown up, had a career, raised a family and entered a contented middle age.